As Latter-day Saints commemorate the handcart companies during this sesquicentennial year, attention is rightly focused on the sacrifices and sufferings of the ill-fated Willie and Martin handcart companies of 1856. But despite the tragedy of those two companies, the handcart venture was largely successful.
Of the 10 handcart trains that trekked to the Salt Lake Valley from 1856 to 1860, eight made the trip without large-scale misfortune, other than the occasional sickness and deaths that were typical of overland travel.
One of these successful trains was the Edward Bunker handcart company, the third to leave in the initial wave from Iowa City, Iowa, in 1856, and the one just preceding the Willie and Martin companies.
Descendants of Captain Bunker will gather in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City at 7 p.m. Sept. 10 for an evening billed as "A Salute to Captain Edward Bunker."
Among the descendants addressing the gathering will be Elder Earl C. Tingey of the Presidency of the Seventy and Elder Robert E. Wells, an emeritus General Authority, who will report on the headstone he recently placed at Edward Bunker's grave site in Colonia Morelos, Mexico. Sharlene Wells Hawkes, former Miss America, will be a featured soloist.
William G. Hartley, professor of history at BYU and a frequent lecturer on the subject of the Mormon Trail, is also a Bunker descendant. He will speak on the theme "Captain Edward Bunker and the Third Mormon Handcart Company in 1856: A Closer Look." His talk will draw on research he has done for a biography he is writing about Edward Bunker.
In a Church News interview, Brother Hartley said Captain Bunker was born in Atkinson, Maine, in 1822 and converted to the Church after meeting Martin Harris, one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, in Kirtland, Ohio. Brother Bunker married Emily Abbott in Nauvoo, then soon joined the exodus west. As part of the Mormon Battalion, he marched to California, then returned to Iowa and took his family west in 1850, pioneering the Ogden, Utah, area. He then answered a call to fill a three-year mission in England and Scotland.
Thus having been over the trail several times, he was well prepared to answer a call while returning home from his mission to help with the handcart outfittings. "For six weeks in Iowa City, he superintended the making of ox yokes, ox bows and hauling of timber, and then was assigned to lead the third handcart company," Brother Hartley noted. "At age 34, this was his fourth trip across the Mormon Trail."
He spent later years as a pioneer bishop in Ogden and Santa Clara, Utah, then founded the settlement of Bunkerville, Nev., named in his honor.
Though it made the trip successfully, the largely Welsh handcart company was not without its trials. One story related by Brother Hartley concerned Thomas D. Giles, who, because of his sightless condition, later became widely known as "the blind harpist."
Brother Giles came in the company with a wife, baby girl and two boys, ages 7 and 9.
"Soon after starting across the plains, the baby became ill and died," Brother Hartley said. "She was buried beside the trail, and the company moved onward.
"A few weeks later, his wife died. She also was buried beside the trail. The two boys, because of their father's condition, were sent back to join another company, which included a group of Welsh emigrants."
Near Fort Bridger in Wyoming, Brother Giles himself became seriously ill. The handcart train halted for two days before Captain Bunker ordered it to move on, leaving two men behind to bury Brother Giles when he died. But they administered to him frequently, keeping him alive until evening, when Elder Parley P. Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve reached the camp. Elder Pratt, who had known Brother Giles in Wales, gave him a blessing, promising that he would be healed instantly and rejoin the company, arrive safely in the Salt Lake Valley and rear a family.
Brother Giles lived to remarry and bless and name seven of his grandchildren. He specialized in music, playing the harp and singing hymns and popular songs. He traveled the state, giving concerts and playing for dances.
Brother Hartley said Captain Bunker was beloved by the people in the handcart company. David Grant, assistant captain, wrote this tribute appearing Aug. 30, 1856, in the Millennial Star: "Elder Bunker has proved himself a father to his people, and I know that the Holy Spirit has been with and aided him in leading them all the time. I am happy to say that we have been united in all things since we left Iowa City, and am glad in having such a man to lead us as our captain."
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